When Leyla Kılıç Karakaynak opened up a tiny restaurant on Kallavi Street in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district in 1996, she couldn’t have predicted that she would end up practically running the whole street.
That small restaurant, Fıccın, is now spread across six buildings on the same block-long pedestrian-only street and has become an Istanbul institution. The restaurant shares its name with its signature dish, a meat-filled savory pastry that is among the Circassian specialties on the menu. Karakaynak’s family hails from North Ossetia, and while Fıccın serves up a number of classic Turkish staples, it’s the regional dishes that you can’t miss, including Çerkez tavuğu, a simple yet sumptous paste of shredded chicken and walnuts, and Çerkes mantısı, comforting, pillowy dumplings served under yogurt.
Kallavi Street on a nice Friday evening is teeming with guests sitting indoors and streetside in Fıccın’s string of restaurants, though the vibe of the narrow alleyway was entirely different when Karakaynak first set up shop 20 years ago.
“This area was a blind spot,” said Karakaynak of the maze of backstreets between the iconic Galatasaray High School and the end of the pedestrian-only Istiklal Avenue.
“I’d arrive in the morning and glue sniffers would come to the door. There wasn’t anyone else around,” she said. Nightlife in the area was confined to specific spots, including a meyhane owned by her cousin and the well-known Yakup 2 meyhane around the corner. It was a far cry from the bustling entertainment hub that the area became known for until recently, as a string of deadly suicide attacks in Istanbul have kept tourists away and scared many locals into not going out. Bars and restaurants once packed with diners and revelers are now empty and emblazoned with forlorn for-rent signs.
Karakaynak has sustained waves of changes in the district, and though business is certainly slower than usual, a throng of loyal locals seems to be keeping the mini-empire alive. Back in 1996, Fıccın quickly caught on among bankers and other white-collar workers who had offices in the area, serving breakfast and lunch until 3 or 4 p.m., when the food ran out.
By 1998, the customers had spilled into Karakaynak’s cousin’s meyhane, and the family realized it was time to open a second location on the street. The expansion continued, as diners became enchanted with the restaurant’s unique offerings.
“We thought it would be a great idea to share our food with others,” Karakaynak said of the signature Circassian dishes.
“Our youngsters aren’t cooking them anymore, but they are a part of our culture and we wanted them to live on,” she added.
She has watched waves of different customers become converts. The office workers and bankers were eventually replaced by advertising agency employees and film crews in the wake of the 2001 economic crisis, and tourists started coming in the years following, resulting in a swirl of interest that made it mandatory for one to call ahead with reservations. Nowadays, it’s considerably easier to secure a table.
Karakaynak acknowledges that business has suffered and that this downturn in Beyoğlu is likely to continue in the near future, but she remains determined to stick around. Fıccın’s reputation will hopefully prevent it from experiencing the same fate of the numerous nearby restaurants and shops that have closed down within the past year.
That reputation is spreading throughout Turkey, and during our chat, Karakaynak said she was exhausted from a successful Fıccın pop-up in Ankara the previous evening, which attracted 160 diners.
“Everyone loved it, they were all so happy,” Karakaynak said of her guests in the Turkish capital.
We’re betting that the joy radiating from Fıccın’s tantalizing array of Circassian and Turkish favorites is palpable enough to carry the restaurant through difficult times. The only limit on its success, it would appear, is the length of Kallavi Street.